British Red Cross

The British Red Cross Society is the United Kingdom body of the worldwide neutral and impartial humanitarian network the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The society was formed in 1870, and is a registered charity with more than 17,200 volunteers and 3,400 staff. At the heart of their work is providing help to people in crisis, both in the UK and overseas. The Red Cross is committed to helping people without discrimination, regardless of their ethnic origin, nationality, political beliefs or religion. Queen Elizabeth II was the patron of the society until her death on 8 September 2022.

Guiding ethos

The mission of the British Red Cross is to mobilise the power of humanity so that individuals and communities can prepare for, deal with and recover from a crisis, summed up by the strapline ‘refusing to ignore people in crisis’. In fulfilling this mission, all volunteers and staff must abide by the seven fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which are:





Voluntary Service



The British Red Cross also has four values, which guide the way they work. These are:





The British Red Cross was formed in 1870, just seven years after the formation of the international movement in Switzerland. This followed the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), and a move across Europe to form similar societies. The society was founded as the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War at a public meeting chaired by Robert Loyd-Lindsay in London on 4 August 1870. It assisted in providing aid to both warring armies in the Franco-Prussian War and subsequent 19th-century conflicts, under the protection of the Red Cross Emblem. The society was one of several British volunteer medical organisations to serve in the war.

In 1905, 35 years after its formation, the society was reconstituted as the British Red Cross Society, and was granted its first royal charter in 1908 by King Edward VII. His consort, Queen Alexandra, became its president.

First World War

Following the start of the Great War in 1914, the British Red Cross joined forces with the Order of St John Ambulance to form the Joint War committee and Joint War Organisation. They pooled resources and formed Voluntary Aid Detachments (or VADs) with members trained in First Aid, Nursing, Cookery, Hygiene and Sanitation. These detachments all worked under the protection of the Red Cross, working in hospitals, rest stations, work parties and supply centres.

The Joint War Organisation also aided assistance at the front line, supplying the first motorised ambulances to the battlefields, which were significantly more efficient than the horse-drawn ambulances they replaced. It was active in setting up centres for recording the wounded and missing. Red Cross volunteers searched towns, villages and hospitals where fighting had occurred, noting names of the missing, the injured and the dead. This formed the basis of the international Message and Tracing service, still running today.

Amongst the more innovative activities of the Red Cross in the war was the training of Airedale Terrier dogs to search for wounded soldiers on battlefields.

Christie’s auction house in Britain held an auction each year from 1915 to 1918 to benefit the Red Cross. People all across the United Kingdom donated their jewelry to help raise money. In 1918 one of the auctioned pieces was the Red Cross diamond.

Inter-war years

A three-quarter length portrait of a Red Cross and Order of St John barge orderly, wearing sandy coloured shorts, pith helmet and white shirt. He stands side on and holds a wooden barge pole in his right hand. He appears to be standing on the deck of a boat, with the River Tigris and buildings on the riverbank visible behind him, 1919.

In 1919, after the cessation of hostilities, the League of the Red Cross (now the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies) was formed, and the role of national societies increased, with a shift of emphasis from wartime relief to focusing on “the improvement of health, the prevention of disease and mitigation of suffering throughout the world”. The British Red Cross stayed involved with blood transfusion past the formation of the National Blood Service and it retained an ancillary role until 1987.

The British Red Cross was instrumental in starting overseas societies through the Empire and Commonwealth, most of which are now independent national societies.

In 1924, the British Red Cross started its youth movement, helping to promote its values to a younger generation.

Second World War

British Red Cross parcel

After the declaration of war in 1939, the British Red Cross once again joined with St John to form the Joint War Organisation, again affording the St John volunteers protection under the Red Cross emblem.

The organisation once again worked in hospitals, care home, nurseries, ambulance units, rest stations and more, much of which was funded by the Duke of Gloucester’s Red Cross and St John appeal, which had raised over £54 million by 1946.

The Red Cross also arranged parcels for prisoners of war, following the provisions of the third Geneva convention in 1929, which laid out strict rules for the treatment of PoWs. The Joint War Organisation sent standard food parcels, invalid food parcels, medical supplies, educational books and recreational materials to prisoners of war worldwide. During the conflict, over 20 million standard food parcels were sent.

During the German occupation of the Channel Islands, the islanders were helped to avoid starvation with food parcels brought by the Red Cross ship SS Vega.

Post war years

The immediate priorities for the British Red Cross following the war, were the huge number of displaced civilians caused by forced migration during the war. The Red Cross provided much relief for these people, including basic supplies, and helping to reunite people through the Messaging and Tracing Service. This work led to the provisions in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians caught up in war.

Since then, the British Red Cross has provided relief to people worldwide, including during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, in Vietnam in 1976, Famine in Africa in the 1980s and the 1999 Armenia, Colombia earthquake. Whilst the society no longer sends its volunteers abroad, it is a leading contributor of delegates to the International Red Cross pool of emergency relief workers.

Between 1948 and 1967, the British Red Cross and the St Andrew’s Ambulance Association jointly operated the Scottish Ambulance Service, under contract to the National Health Service. NHS Scotland took over full responsibility for the service in 1974.

In the UK, the society has been active at many major disasters, from the coal tip slide at Aberfan in 1966, the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing at Lockerbie in 1988, to the 7 July 2005 London bombings. They provide support on all levels, from front line medical provision, to running helplines for worried relatives and long term emotional care for the victims.

British Red Cross Museum

The British Red Cross runs a museum containing a variety of materials from its beginnings in 1870 to the present day. This museum is a member of The London Museums of Health & Medicine group. The collections include posters, photographs, badges worn by Society members, medals awarded to Society members, medical equipment and fundraising materials.

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